What You Need to Know About Law School Scholarships

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In 2012, President Obama told a group of college students: “Check this out, all right? I’m the president of the United States. We only finished paying off our student loans about eight years ago.” That means the President and First Lady were well into their careers, with a combined resume of civil rights attorney, law professor, politician, author, nonprofit director, dean of students, big-law lawyer, and more before they paid off their law school and undergrad loans in their forties. If you needed a clear picture of how law school loans could hang over you, even throughout a successful career … there you go. During my own law school application process, I was deeply concerned about how law school loans could inhibit me from pursuing a public interest law career, but I’m here to share my own success in the law school scholarship application process to encourage you to take advantage of the same programs.

I’m no scholarship expert, but I ended up with offers for multiple named scholarships during my application season, including two for full tuition from the T14. Too many law school applicants don’t even know what scholarship opportunities are out there, but I hope that, by telling you what worked for me (and where I got lucky), you’ll see the value in taking the time to apply for these opportunities yourself.

One of my first steps in my law school applications was to get a feel for the scholarship options out there. Most Strongly Supported authors have laid out a great overview on scholarships in past posts here, here and here.

Once you get the lay of the land, you should start working on your scholarship essays. I’m serious. Do it now. Because there will come a time, as it did during my applications, where you’re juggling a half dozen different applications with different timelines, something comes up at work, you’re coming down with the flu … and you remember you’re 12 hours away from a scholarship deadline. When I was in this position, I was on the verge of saying it wasn’t worth submitting an application at that late stage, already maxed out on Dayquil and dreading an early start at work the next day. However, when I read over the essay prompt for the scholarship, I realized that one of the essays I’d spent hours writing for another scholarship was nearly perfect for this one too. After taking the time to personalize the essay with the impending deadline, I was able to send off some quality work in no time. You don’t really know just what will come up during your application process, but you do know your story, so it can never really be too early to start working on telling it in the most effective way possible.

Some scholarships I applied to also required specific letters of recommendation, so you should prepare from the beginning to let at least one of your recommenders know (1) you may be asking them to write you multiple letters and (2) they may need to highlight specific qualities of yours in each letter. That’s because you’ll find yourself in a tough position if you have to explain why a certain letter of recommendation doesn’t fit with the way you talk about yourself in a scholarship application. So if your scholarship application is about how you want to pursue a career as a public defender, you don’t want your recommender writing that your dream is to work in environmental law. I was asked about specific elements of my recommendation letters during scholarship interviews, so make sure that this part of your application represents you well.

Perhaps the most difficult thing for me to grasp about effective scholarship applications was how they were different from job applications, or the main law school applications, for that matter. For jobs and schools, you’re presenting resumes, LSAT scores, multiple essays and letters of rec — all to show just how impressive you are and “worthy” of the opportunity. If you’re applying to a scholarship, you were already accepted to a school, or you will be accepted at the time you’re being considered for the scholarship. One of the most distressing moments in my scholarship efforts was my afternoon waiting in the lobby of a law school building for a scholarship interview, surrounded by the hum of other scholarship applicants talking about their trip around the world doing humanitarian work or the incredible nonprofit they founded themselves. It was utterly intimidating, but I was able to stay positive through that experience because I had learned by that point that being a successful scholarship applicant wasn’t just about parading out an impressive resume. It was also about showing your commitment to the work on which the scholarship is based, whether it’s pursuing a unique public interest career or representing and empowering your affinity group. In other words, your law school application in one sense must be based on everything you’ve done up to that point, but a scholarship application is about demonstrating your potential.

Best of luck getting started on your own scholarship applications. And if you have any questions or experiences to share on the subject, feel free to comment!

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